CHINA'S "WAIT AND SEE' IS A GOOD FIRST STEP

CHINA'S "WAIT AND SEE' IS A GOOD FIRST STEP

Now what? Now that Taiwan has elected Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party as its next president, despite heavy-handed Chinese efforts to discourage such an outcome, what does Beijing do next?

The official answer coming from the mainland's leadership is, ''We must wait and see.'' But when asked what they are waiting for or what they hope to see, Chinese officials seem unclear.Beyond futile hopes that Chen will somehow endorse a ''one China'' policy that accords with Beijing's definition - the prospects of this are slim to none - people in Beijing seem at a loss for words.

It's too bad this speechless condition did not strike them sooner. Even the most ardent Taiwan critics privately acknowledge that the overabundance of harsh words by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji before the election makes it much more difficult now to seek or find common ground with the soon-to-be-installed DPP government.

The good news is that, since the election, Beijing has refrained from making matters worse. ''We have no choice, we must learn to deal with Chen Shui-bian,'' has been a common refrain during my discussions with Chinese officials and security analysts, who also acknowledge that ''even Chen is an improvement over President Lee Teng-hui.''

But almost every person I talked to in Beijing was pessimistic about the future. Some were remarkably candid in their doubts that their own leadership could develop a coordinated, coherent policy to deal with Taipei more effectively.

One thing is clear. Future progress in cross-strait relations will require a new formula. Leaders in Beijing are being forced to confront the reality that almost everyone in Taiwan has long recognized: that ''one country, two systems,'' the formula used to incorporate Hong Kong and Macau back into the mainland, will never work for Taiwan.

What's needed is a new construct that permits Beijing's ''one China'' policy and Taipei's quest for equal relations to coexist. This is difficult, but by no means impossible.

Chen has been very cautious in his policy pronouncements. If, as has been hinted, he successfully removes the clause in his party's platform that advocates establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, this must be seen as a significant olive branch. He has also promised not to seek a revision of Taiwan's constitution or an independence referendum, two significant DPP policy reversals.

In another important conciliatory gesture, Chen has intimated that he is willing to talk about ''one China.'' ''As long as we are treated as equals,'' he has pledged, ''there is nothing we cannot discuss.''

This dovetails nicely with Beijing's expressed view that ''as long as 'one China' is acknowledged, all things are possible.'' In truth, Beijing has long been willing to go back to the good old days when both sides agreed to disagree on what ''one China'' meant; it just wants to keep this fig leaf in place.

At this point, Beijing must understand that Chen has limited flexibility in dealing with cross-strait issues, and that he also has more urgent priorities (like figuring out how to govern). Nonetheless, there are a few additional steps Chen can take to send positive signals to Beijing.

He can ask the highly respected Taiwan elder statesman Koo Chen-fu to stay on as head of the Straits Exchange Foundation in charge of cross-strait dialogue with the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS).

Chen could then propose an early meeting between Koo and ARATS Chairman Wang Daohan Wang, perhaps in some neutral location. This would provide further evidence that Chen has not rejected ''one China'' as a basis for discussion, even if he cannot accept China's interpretation of this principle.

He could also call for a comprehensive review of Taiwan's defense needs, including a realistic assessment of current and likely future threats, and stress that any decision on Taiwan participation in theater missile defense will be contingent on the review.

Moreover, he could also urge the U.S. Congress to withhold action on the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act pending completion of this study - and call off Taiwan's lobbyists who continue to vigorously push for its passage. This would defuse several potentially explosive issues and remind Beijing that a renewal of threatening gestures will have consequences.

Beijing's wait-and-see attitude is a step in the right direction. The key to future reconciliation, however, rests in the ability of China's leadership to recognize and positively respond to the positive gestures that are already emanating from Chen Shui-bian - rather than repeating its past practice of shooting at the doves carrying olive branches from Taipei.